Russian Revolution at 100: Moscow and Kyiv’s Historical Amnesia Reaching Incongruous New Heights

11/06/2017 06:36 pm ET

Judging from recent developments, “airbrushing” inconvenient history out of public view never really went out of fashion in Russia and Ukraine. To be sure, one can still spot visible vestiges of the revolutionary past in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kyiv. During my recent three month stay in all three cities, I went out of my way to track down outlandish remnants, relics and even curios of the Soviet era which stuck out, somewhat incongruously, despite political leaders’ strenuous efforts to remove or avoid any discussion of revolutionary upheaval, let alone social inequality or underlying class tensions.

At St. Petersburg’s Museum of Political History, the historically curious may get a glance of Lenin’s old desk. Though I spotted a few onlookers here, I was the only patron at the nearby Kirov museum, which preserves the original art nouveau interior of Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov. Other prominent examples of a bygone era may be found at the Finlyandskiy railway station, which highlights proletarian motifs along its building façade. Sometimes, however, the past can seem just plain off-beat and retro, for example at the Soviet Arcade Game Museum or the local train museum. Other sites may seem even quirkier, for instance a sporty refitted Soviet-era car parked along the pier, or discarded Soviet-era relics at the Udelnaya flea market.

From Moscow to Kyiv

In Moscow, the disjuncture between post-Soviet present and past may seem even more jarring, particularly on the metro which features striking proletarian stained glass panels and sculpture work. One is particularly transported back in time at the local Byelorusskaya metro station, where visitors may take in vintage mosaics depicting happy and content Byelorussians from the Soviet era. To me, other Moscow remnants seemed to have been literally conjured up from the Jurassic period, like the Marx memorial which has now been transformed into a tourist site where onlookers snap selfies on their cell phones. Walking around the Krymskaya statue garden, meanwhile, can be a downright eerie experience: peeping out from parade grounds, the visitor glimpses age-old dinosaurs from the Communist era such as Leonid Brezhnev.

The true pièce de résistance, however, is the All-Russian Exhibition Center located outside Moscow’s city center, a vast fairground where onlookers are greeted with the sight of multiple pavilions touting supposed ethnic harmony within the Soviet Union. In the center of one promenade, I was struck by a fountain featuring gaily dressed ethnic minorities in traditional dress. Nearby at a local metro stop, visitors may glimpse hyper-stylized statues which idealize Soviet industrial and military workers, women and even astronauts. Traveling on to Kyiv, I was struck by the common similarities, for example at the city’s Expo Center which also showcases Soviet-era pavilions. Fittingly enough, or perhaps just coincidentally, organizers have assembled life-like dinosaur models in a nearby park for visitors’ amusement. Outside the Expo Center in another area of town, visitors may visit Kyiv’s flea market, whose Soviet-era junk completely mimics old curios at the Udelnaya flea market of St. Petersburg.

Obscuring Revolutionary History

Authorities in both Moscow and Kyiv would probably just as soon ignore such day-to-day reminders of the past, let alone any discussion of meaningful history on the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution. That, at least, is the impression I get from speaking with Vadim Damier, a historian and Senior Researcher at the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and author of The Age of Steel: a Social History of Soviet Society 1917-1991 (2014) and most recently, Anarchists, Syndicalists, and the First World War (2017). “For some people,” Damier remarks, “revolution signifies chaos and destruction.”

Indeed, historical debate swirling around the revolution’s centennial has prompted silence from Putin and his clique. With the exception of a festival in St. Petersburg and an art exhibit featuring “young painters dedicated to the October Revolution” to be held in Russia’s lower house of parliament or Duma, the Kremlin has avoided official commemoration of the anniversary. In light of Putin’s own wariness toward popular uprisings, this is unsurprising. “The silence is like a dream in which the dreamer is being suffocated,” notes the Guardian. “Centenaries are special: everyone can count to 100. But so far Lenin and his comrades have not rated as much as a commemorative stamp. The man himself is still displayed – in a new suit – in the mausoleum on Red Square, but no one wants to talk about exactly what he did.”

The revolutionary centennial places Putin in a bind since 1917 cannot be entirely embraced nor dismissed. Try as he might, Putin cannot avoid underlying paradoxes since Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union, which in turn was born out of revolution. As a result, Putin has gone into somersaults by decrying revolution while lamenting the passing of the Soviet Union as a great geopolitical catastrophe. Such posturing may reflect Russian society as a whole, since polling reveals public opinion almost evenly split over the revolution. Speaking before parliament last year, the president sought to “fudge the issue” by refusing to take sides, blandly remarking that it was time to promote national reconciliation and forget old grievances in the name of healing Mother Russia.

In St. Petersburg, the dumbing-down of history has reached historic new heights. Walking near the city center, I came upon the Aurora, a Czarist-era cruiser parked alongside the Neva River. In October, 1917 the Aurora aimed its cannons at the royal residence and fired the first shots in the Bolshevik assault on Russia’s provisional government. For years, visitors could go aboard the ship and enjoy a makeshift museum focusing on the sailors’ mutiny of 1917. But now, the exhibit has been altered to encompass the entire history of the Czarist and Soviet fleet, with a final display featuring a photo of Putin at sea looking through his binoculars.

Patriotism and the “Great Patriotic War”

For the outside visitor, however, it is clear that Putin does not disdain all chapters of Soviet history. Indeed, the Russian president has expertly channeled nationalism through the prism of World War II, also known as the “Great Patriotic War.” In St. Petersburg, the authorities have set up displays of wartime military hardware in public squares, and one cannot miss the old Soviet Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad on the outskirts of the city. “The current Russian government makes ample use of history,” notes the Guardian. “No child is likely to forget the great patriotic war against fascism – but Lenin can’t be made to fit.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, a military parade on Red Square will avoid celebrating or focusing on the revolution itself, while seeking to re-create the original Soviet procession of 1941 which deployed soldiers to the front lines.

Jan Claas Behrends, a historian at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, near Berlin, remarks “under Putin’s reign, the cult surrounding the Great Patriotic War has become so massive and widespread that it leaves little room for other ways of thinking.” In light of recent disturbing developments, the professor would seem to have a point: anyone who questions Soviet heroism is potentially taking a serious risk. Take, for example, Vladimir Melikhov, a construction magnate who opened a historical museum delving into the taboo issue of why some Cossacks and other Soviet citizens collaborated with the Nazis during the initial German invasion.

For daring to question official history, Melikhov has been denounced as a traitor on state television, border guards have defaced his passport and the businessman has been confronted with a series of baseless criminal charges. Melikhov suspects that the F.S.B., the domestic intelligence arm of the earlier Soviet K.G.B., is behind trumped-up charges against him. It would seem the protective bubble around the Great Patriotic War is expanding, with one website even featuring a list of Moscow intellectuals who it considers to be traitors. Meanwhile, the authorities are restricting access to historical archives which had been opened up after the fall of the Soviet Union.

It has also become more politically difficult to question common stereotypes about the war. Take, for example, the issue of Major General Ivan Panfilov, who supposedly sacrificed himself and a handful of guardsmen during a heroic defense of Moscow. When the director of the Russian State Archive called the story a “fiction” invented by Soviet propaganda, he was removed from his post. Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, has said that inconvenient historical facts should not get in the way of hallowed national myths. Panfilov, the minister declared, should be treated as a “saint” and anyone who questions his story is “scrum” who “should burn in hell.”

Czarism: Back to the Future?

Even as he attempts to have it both ways on the old Soviet Union, Putin has indulged in some unlikely Czarist nostalgia. Cynically hedging his bets, the president has restored the Soviet national anthem while burnishing earlier imperial symbolism and encouraging the growth of the Orthodox Church and conservatism. The authorities, meanwhile, have erected new monuments honoring the Czars as well as prominent military and political figures associated with the Romanov era. Take, for example, Putin’s recent unveiling of a monument to Emperor Alexander I at Moscow’s Alexander Garden. During a ceremony, which was also attended by representatives of the Orthodox Church, Putin praised the emperor for renewing Russian prestige and grandeur.

The media, Damier tells me, has gone along with such historical revisionism by apparently casting its lot with conservatism and embracing Russia’s Czarist past. Glorification of Russia’s pre-revolutionary Czarist era, the historian remarks, fits nicely with the Kremlin’s conservative political bent. Indeed, self-styled neo-Czarists have formed a cult around Nicholas II and his family, and on the very site where the last Czar and his relatives were murdered by Bolsheviks, zealots have established a monastery complex equipped with shrines, shops and even cafes. Going one step further, a new group of “Czar Worshippers” sanctifies everything associated with late Nicholas II.

While the outfit was initially regarded as a “cranky group,” members have now reportedly “shown their teeth” by opposing a film depicting the story of an erotic love affair between Czar Nicholas and a young ballerina. Boris Kolonitsky, a historian of the revolutionary period, has remarked “It’s fairly ridiculous that the biggest political discussion around the revolution is about a film that has little to do with either revolution and is quite anti-historical.” The director of the film has been targeted in two different arson attacks, and recently an attacker rammed a truck full of gas canisters into a cinema which had been scheduled to screen the film. Speaking later to police, the attacker admitted he received religious instruction at a church which had been turned into a virtual shrine to Nicholas. Far from seeking to distance itself from retro Czarist elements, the Kremlin is reportedly planning on honoring next year’s 100th anniversary of Nicholas’ martyrdom.

Forgotten Underground History

For radical historians like Damier, such developments completely miss the point. Hardly a conservative let alone Soviet apologist, Damier is an avowed anarchist who has sought to shed light on forgotten, underground or overlooked social movements of the revolutionary era. For him, the Bolsheviks were merely one political grouping amid a maelstrom of other “spontaneous, self-organizing and anti-capitalist” forces. In this version, it was the Bolsheviks who betrayed the spirit of the revolution by imposing state capitalism and repressing popular movements. Damier believes that Nestor Makhno’s anarchist guerilla insurgency in Ukraine deserves further scrutiny, in addition to a large peasant revolt in the Volga region. What is more, he claims, an anarchist movement in Siberia has largely been obscured by history. However, the greatest threat from the left to Bolshevik power was undoubtedly the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion near St. Petersburg which was mercilessly repressed. Damier remarks, “When the Bolsheviks finally managed to stamp out popular movements, a goal which was finally accomplished by 1921, the revolution sputtered out.”

To the outside observer, the year 1921 may seem relatively arbitrary but these distinctions matter within certain circles. So says Denis Pilash, a veteran of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution on the progressive left circuit and a post-graduate student at Kyiv National University. “One can easily determine what the person’s leftist political stripes may be, depending on when someone claims the revolution finally ended,” Pilash tells me. “If you say 1920 or 1921,” he remarks, “you can be sure you’re dealing with an anarchist who rejects the consolidation of the Bolshevik Party, the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt and military defeat of Makhno’s forces.”

Ukrainian Amnesia

On the other hand, Pilash adds, “If you say the revolution ended in the mid-1920s, we’re probably dealing with someone who’s an anti-Stalinist or Trotskyite.” According to this line of thought, there were real leftist alternatives to Stalinism within the Bolshevik movement. In Kyiv, Pilash assists with the editing of leftist Commons Journal, which is planning an upcoming issue about revolution past and present and the legacies of 1917. However, the young activist freely concedes that these debates are somewhat restricted to small segments of the left and leftist intellectuals in Russia and Ukraine. On the whole, however, “it’s almost criminalized” to reflect on such matters in Ukraine and deeply unpopular, since all mention of social class is omitted.

While it may seem inconceivable that these issues could be skirted over in discussing the revolution, such limitations aren’t surprising within the political context of current day Russia and Ukraine, both of which are doing their utmost to avoid any public events around the revolution’s centennial. Putin, Pilash explains, has mixed Czarist nostalgia with a certain brand of Soviet patriotism though it’s important to understand that Kremlin ideology “lacks any link to older progressive strands within the revolutionary tradition and represents an anachronistic throwback to the concept of ‘Mother Russia.’”

Pilash adds that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a bland decree honoring the centennial, but there was no official follow-up or public display. In general, Ukraine is simply interested in building up its own national identity as opposed to engaging in any “inconvenient” discussion of social class, be it peasants, workers, intellectuals or capitalists. To be sure, Pilash continues, the Russian revolution is perceived as important in Ukraine but only within the context of Kyiv’s struggle for national liberation. Not surprisingly, Makno too is somewhat omitted from discussion or his role has become over-simplified. Pilash tells me that while Makhno is highlighted in popular culture every so often, many Ukrainians have “no deep understanding” of the anarchist’s political movement.

Revolutionary Legacy

As historical debate over 1917 becomes increasingly taboo or shunned, some artists are seeking to re-ignite a discussion about the revolution’s legacy. Far outside downtown St. Petersburg, I come upon the Street Art Museum whose manifesto reads “Revolutionary art has always played an integral role in mass political uprising…The need for radical change and a desire for breaking all ties with the past became the impetus for people to take political action into the public.” The Street Art Museum aims to “reflect on the phenomenon of revolution through art and to create a dialogue between modern artists from different countries.”

A noble goal perhaps, but one far removed from the day-to-day lives of many people throughout the former Soviet Union. Consider the case of Kyiv, where locals are subjected to a daily barrage of consumerism around Maidan square and in the metro, where ads are literally projected on to walls while commuters wait for the train. According to noted Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan, public space has been re-organized in such a way as to reflect changing tastes and social mores, to the point that the older generation can sometimes seem almost invisible.

Kadan, who is also a member of the Kyiv artist group R.E.P. (Revolutionary Experimental Space), says it has become de rigueur to criticize the Communist era, but “this rhetoric is a little empty.” A critic of his country’s nationalist far right, Kadan’s work focuses on social injustice in the new Ukraine. “There is a huge problem with social inequality in Kyiv right now,” Kadan explains in a local restaurant. Downtown, he adds, has become a “privileged space” where the vast majority of people find luxury items out of reach. Outside the local Bessarabsky market, which features high-end goods, there are plenty of beggars and sometimes the police come and round them up.

Leading out of the market, one comes upon Khreschatyk Street with its old Soviet-style architecture. And yet, people who live off state pensions can’t afford to shop here. “To be honest,” Kadan adds, “most people working in creative industries can’t afford it either, but they must spend money on their image.” Nevertheless, the artist believes there has been an effort to somehow refashion this part of the city so as to reflect a more youthful and progressive feel. In contrast to supposedly crass, vulgar, throwback and kitschy old school Soviet folk, the new Ukrainian middle class presents itself as more tasteful, more educated and more accepting of modern design. This younger generation disdains older folk who may have worked at one time in factories on the outskirts of Kyiv.

In Ukraine as well as Russia it seems, there are some who would just as soon dispose of the past and treat the old Soviet Union as an historic aberration, going so far as to completely de-politicize public space and thus rid the city of any last inconvenient historical memories.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer and photographer.

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